March/April 2015

Combined forces

A new partnership will jump-start mining contracts for First Nations in northern Ontario

By Chris Windeyer

Special Report: Ontario The First Nations Mining Corporation (FNMC) is emerging as an example of a new kind of partnership to further aboriginal interests in mining development in Ontario. Centred in northern Ontario and formally launched in early 2014, FNMC is a joint venture between four First Nations and three corporate heavyweights in the Canadian mining industry. Lac Seul, Flying Post, Mattagami and Wahgoshig First Nations own 51 per cent of the registered corporation, with SNC-Lavalin, Cementation Canada and the Morris Group holding minority stakes.

“What we had envisioned for [FNCM] was finding a way that the communities can participate actively in mine construction, operation, and closure,” says Jason Batise, economic development and technical services advisor to the Wabun Tribunal Council, which represents the participating First Nations.

According to the Ontario Mining Association, about one out of every 10 people working in Ontario’s mining industry has an aboriginal background. What is changing is that aboriginal communities are moving beyond participation via impact and benefit agreements (IBAs); they are now organizing businesses and joint partnerships to spearhead mine development.

For the Wabun Tribal Council, mining is nothing new, says Batise. WTC is headquartered in Timmins, where gold mining has been going on for over a century. “From the First Nations’ point of view it was a way for us to develop our capacity instantly,” Batise says. “If we start from zero to develop on our own it might take us several decades to get to where the Lavalins or the Cementations have already gotten to.”

That is where a company like Cementation Canada comes in. As a mine construction heavyweight, Cementation provides both entry-level mine training and more specific skills training for First Nations employees. Eric Kohtakangas, Cementation’s vice-president of operations, says his company has adapted a training program that was originally borne of the skills shortage caused by the commodities boom of the early 2000s and is now used exclusively to train First Nations workers.

The program begins with a six-week basic mine training course – including three weeks of classroom training in their home community – to prepare new hires for working underground. At that point they pick up entry-level jobs and then, with further training, can choose a more specialized career path. “With any training program, you want to see 100 per cent success,” Kohtakangas says. “You don’t want to train 10 community members and come away with two [workers].”

While other aboriginal-led mining companies like the Nunavut Resource Corporation have positioned themselves as investors in existing advanced-stage projects, Batise says FNMC’s aim is to instead be a full life cycle contractor, doing work from the exploration phase through to remediation and monitoring. “We want to be a First Nations mining company that can be turnkey for communities and for owners that are looking to satisfy the [impact benefit] agreements that they have,” he says.

Kohtakangas notes that even with IBAs in place, smaller communities can struggle to glean benefits from projects simply because of a lack of capacity and skilled labour. FNMC can start working with communities beforehand to get them ready for projects. And all that ground work makes it easier for mine owners to hit the economic and labour force targets contained in most IBAs. “Obviously we’re going to go in and build a project for the mine owner, but at the same time, we’re going to try to support that agreement,” he says.

What is the benefit for Cementation Canada? Kohtakangas points out the company can be more competitive without adding additional project costs and by supporting strong First Nations participation. “It’s a benefit for all partners in the projects including the mine owners. In the end our goal is to be doing more of these projects with more of the First Nation communities and mine owners throughout the north.”

The actual business of doing business is still down the road, however. The partners have a memorandum of understanding in place and are hammering out detailed agreements that will allow the partnership to begin bidding on contracts. “The more players you add, the more complicated it gets,” Batise says. “It’s not adversarial; it’s just a matter of making people comfortable with their positions within the corporation.”

Still, Batise says FNMC’s ultimate goal is to offer a model for other First Nations in northern Ontario. He points to the Ring of Fire, where communities have less experience with mining of their lands: “If we can help out other First Nation communities along the way, rub some of our experience off on them and have them participate in the success of FNMC that would be a win-win.”

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